The Shared City

L.A. Fights Over Water, Power and Big Data

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Credit: Flickr user victoriabernal

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Controller Ron Galperin have been in office for less than four months between them, but the two Democrats are smack in the middle of a fascinating battle over the stuff of modern city life: Pensions and transparency, city services and big data.

At the center of it all is the Department of Water and Power, a widely disliked municipal utility agency that has earned itself just two stars on Yelp. ("LADWP — you can eat a bowl full of bees," is one of its milder reviews.) Garcetti, then the city council president, ran hard against the utility during the election. One gloves-off ad framed his opponent, Wendy Greuel, as "the DWP’s mayor," and asked, "how much will it cost you?"

Garcetti won the mayorship in July and, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, the International Brotherhood of Workers Local 18, the relevant union, has been willing to scale back its demands as the city negotiates a new contract. On the table at the moment is a contract that would hold off on raises for three years. There are those on the city council who would like to sign the agreement. Garcetti, though, has much riding on the contract, and has so far been unwilling to declare victory and move on.

Thus Fix DWP!, an online petition that the mayor’s office launched Monday night. Garcetti, the petition makes plain, is targeting not just the substance of the DWP contract, but also its mechanics. At its heart is a push to end what Garcetti calls "secret deals on costly work rules and perks" and what might less passionately be called the side agreements that govern what union members take home in their paychecks. The Los Angeles Times, for example, has reported on an obscure provision that requires the DWP to pay out unlimited sick days.

Garcetti is betting that he can tap Angelenos’ dislike of DWP and use it to change the dynamics of the city’s relationship with the department. The new mayor is no stranger to online organizing: The banner on his website reads "Eric Garcetti, #lamayor," as in an official Twitter hashtag. He has also demonstrated the skill of staying just this side of the line of pestering that marks much successful online organizing. The blog post announcing the petition is titled "You Asked for This," and his office is tweeting it out with the note, "Thousands of Angelenos have signed Mayor Garcetti’s petition to fix DWP. What are you waiting for?"

Perhaps more interesting than Garcetti’s actions is what Galperin has occupied himself with during his six weeks in office. Since taking over Greuel’s seat as city controller, Galperin has talked about the heaps of "big data" that a city the size of Los Angeles produces, and the "many ways to manipulate that data to provide us with a wealth of knowledge to make the city much more efficient."

In that spirit, last week Galperin posted Control Panel, an online database of city salaries and benefits with a focus on the Department of Works and Power. It reveals many things. For one, the utility spent more than $77 million in overtime in the first half of this year alone. But more than that, it drew attention to the "616 distinct pay codes used by DWP that can modify an otherwise approved base salary."

Control Panel is hosted on a non-city website because, Galperin said, the city’s infrastructure wasn’t up to it. There’s more to come on pensions and health care, but for now it’s providing the raw data available on DWP.

"This website," reads an introductory note on Galperin’s own site, "and the information it contains, is part of an ongoing transparency initiative from the Office of Controller Ron Galperin to help Angelenos better understand how the City allocates public funds." In that, it becomes a sort of second prong in Garcetti’s online organizing push to define how the city sees DWP. The mayor, for his part, has called the findings of the controller’s database "yet another reason why DWP must be reformed."

Garcetti and company aren’t the first elected officials eager to use the digital techniques that worked so well during the campaign and apply them work of governing (see President Obama’s Organizing for Action). And there’s some grumbling over the approach. Some on the city council, for example, are "a little weary of the constant campaigning." It’s inarguable that the real political benefit for Garcetti comes when Angelenos appreciate just how fully he’s bent to the DWP to his, and presumably their, liking.

But engaging the public in a policy battle is a tough thing to pull off, said Tim Bonnemann, founder and CEO of the San Jose-based digital engagement solutions firm Intellitics.

"It’s certainly great from a campaign or an activism viewpoint," Bonnemann said of the barebones Fix DWP! petition. "People have an easy way to sign their name and press submit, and that’s great for him. But from a public participation standpoint, you want to be sure you provide the public a minimum of information on what you’re asking them to participate in — at least a link to a policy paper. And you also want to close the loop at the end." On the Garcetti site, "there’s no information on how the support will be used."

"If you want to consider them participants, and not just a click horde" — the German phrase is klickvieh, said Bonnemann, a Cologne native — "then you want to actually inform them on what’s at stake."

Common online organizing problems, no doubt. But Garcetti and Galperin’s argument is unique. They say they need data to govern Los Angeles to the best benefit of its people. And that calculation doesn’t change much even if you resolve the dollars-and-cents questions of who gets paid what. It’s an approach to governing that takes on added weight in the wake of Detroit’s bankruptcy and the debate over what the data really shows about the need to cut pensions there.

No doubt the union sees things differently. But Garcetti and Galperin are, in a way, having that fight over data on the front end, so they needn’t have it on the back end.

The Shared City is made possible with the support of The Knight Foundation.

Nancy Scola is a journalist and writer whose work on the intersections of technology and politics has been published by The American Prospect, Capital, Columbia Journalism Review, New York, Reuters, Salon, Science Progress, Seed, and other publications. She is a correspondent on technology and politics for The Atlantic. She was previously the associate editor of techPresident, a widely-read daily online publication of the Personal Democracy Forum. She’s talked about governing, campaigns, political organizing, technology policy, digital media and more on the BBC, CNN.com, MSNBC, and WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show,” and frequently appears on conference panels.

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